Chaotic American departure and uncertain future for Afghanistan | Daily News

Chaotic American departure and uncertain future for Afghanistan

Taliban fighters in Kabul
Taliban fighters in Kabul

Afghanistan is the world’s most complex and closely watched country today. The country is beset with unsettled internal disputes among tribal communities, as well as trans-border criminal and subversive activities including drug smuggling and major problems of governing. A current rise in religious ultra-nationalism is taking place against the backdrop of a bloody history of armed clashes, the Soviet invasion, American troop deployment and Taliban fundamentalism.

However, in marked contrast to its hardline, fundamentalist stance, the Taliban leaders in Afghanistan offered conciliatory messages at a press conference in Kabul on Tuesday (17). They promised not to discriminate against women or seek to control the media and suggesting that those who worked with the previous Government and Allied Forces would be granted amnesty. But many experts express scepticism over the Taliban promises as the militant organization’s past practices were full of most harsh attitudes towards women’s rights, media freedom and human rights of opponents.

Taliban co-founder and de facto leader Abdul Ghani Baradar arrived in the country on the same day for the first time in more than a decade, returning to the group’s birthplace in the southern city of Kandahar just days after his fighters took control of the capital Kabul.

The US military withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent Taliban takeover has fuelled fears of intensification of security threats to the South Asian region, which was once labelled by former US President Bill Clinton as, “the world’s most dangerous place.”

The threat becomes all the more dangerous considering that nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan are a part of this volatile region. Already the two nations are involved in the developments in Afghanistan.

Pakistan, with the obvious intention of keeping India out, called for a conference of Afghanistan’s neighbours. Islamabad proposed to invite Iran, Turkey, China, and Russia for talks on Afghanistan’s future.

To understand the situation of Afghanistan, it is essential to study its recent history. Afghanistan has been a venue for two great wars. The first began in 1979 when Soviet Forces invaded Afghanistan. As a response, the United States made a major blunder by arming and strengthening the fundamentalist Afghan Mujahideens, to fight the Soviets. They were backed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. However, after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, the US quickly followed suit. The vacuum facilitated the growth of religious fundamentalism with the Taliban as its prime agent, which provided a haven for Al Qaeda terrorists.

Re-enacting the inglorious Vietnam withdrawal five decades ago, the US evacuated all its citizens, permanent residents and their families from Afghanistan. Many Afghans who supported or worked with the US forces were left behind. They include many family members, women, and children. Although Taliban leaders promised to be more tolerant of women’s rights, most Afghan women and their families disbelieve the assurances given by the militant leaders. A spokesman for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “Nevertheless, the promises have been made, and whether or not they are honoured or broken will be closely scrutinized.”

However, some foreign governments and organizations reacted with tentative optimism to the Taliban’s pledges to pursue more inclusive governance, not discriminate against women and grant amnesty to government officials. Anwar Gargash, a senior official in the United Arab Emirates government said, “In this turbulent situation, the statements by the Taliban spokesman were encouraging. We welcome his emphasis on amnesty and tolerance over revenge, as well as his promise to honour the rights of women to education and work.”

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said that Ankara was “continuing our dialogue with all sides, including the Taliban.” He added that Turkey had “welcomed all the messages given by the Taliban so far, whether it be to foreigners or to diplomatic missions or to their own people. I hope we will see this in their actions.”

Sri Lankan foreign policy analysts, like their counterparts in the region, watch the developments in Afghanistan with concern over the repercussions on regional security.

Colombo’s immediate concern is about the safety of 65 Sri Lankan nationals in Afghanistan. Most of them work for the United Nations, international organizations, NATO military bases and private companies. The Government is coordinating with India to bring those Sri Lankans back to the country as India has sent several aircraft to bring its nationals to New Delhi.

Sri Lanka is evaluating the immediate, mid-term and long-term implications of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The Government will watch the response of the international community including the reactions of South Asian neighbours before deciding on the resumption of bilateral ties and recognizing the Kabul Government.

Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. Subramaniam Jaishankar spoke to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to seek American assistance in getting Indians evacuated from Kabul. Currently the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul is being technically manned by the US Forces with air traffic control and perimeter under American security cover. While India is all set to evacuate the second batch of its nationals from Kabul, the US Secretary of State assured Jaishankar of full support in future evacuations through civilian flights.

Jaishankar, who reportedly held secret talks with Taliban leaders last month, is currently in New York to chair the United Nations Security Council sessions on terrorism and peacekeeping. An Indian official said, “Our priorities are Indians working in Afghanistan, Indians who went to Afghanistan despite our advisory, Indians who were employed by US and European contractors to work in Afghanistan, the civilian population of Indian origin and Afghan friends with traditional links with our country.”

Indian officials hinted that New Delhi will not be the first to recognize the new Kabul regime. India is likely to align itself with the responses of the democratic bloc of countries on the issue of recognition. Most countries will watch the conduct of the Taliban leadership before recognizing the new Government. Many countries, including India, did not recognize the last Taliban regime led by Mullah Omer 20 years ago, which was responsible for the most obnoxious act of destruction of Bamiyan Buddha statues, a world heritage.

India, with its new relationship with the US would obviously wait for the decision by the Western democracies, associations like the Quad, as well as Asian partners. The Taliban will have controlling powers over the Kabul Government, which is likely to be an Islamic coalition, which could accommodate other powerful regional groups as well.

Afghanistan is a member of the largest regional cooperation organization, the South Asian association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). As Indian commentator Dinesh Bhattarai pointed out, SAARC’s importance in stabilizing and effectively transforming the region is becoming increasingly self-evident. Thirty-six years ago, at the height of the Cold War, leaders of seven South Asian nations – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – created this regional forum to collectively find solutions to South Asian issues. Its charter stated its goal as “mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems.” Afghanistan was admitted as the eighth member in 2007.

SAARC was set up with much hope on its capacity to adequately address the numerous threats and challenges the region faced. However, SAARC has remained sidelined and dormant since its 18th summit of 2014 in Kathmandu mainly because of India’s refusal to attend the 19th Summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan.

Although political issues were not resolved through SAARC it has developed a comprehensive network of institutions, linkages, and mechanisms. Bhattarai pointed out that in the beginning, India suspected it to be a way for smaller neighbours to “gang up” against it. Such concerns have proved to be unfounded. SAARC has made significant contributions to the development of civil society and track-two initiatives.

Though SAARC’s charter prohibits discussing bilateral issues at formal forums, SAARC summits provide a unique, informal window, ‘the retreat’ for leaders to meet without aides and chart future courses of action. If the SAARC Summit could be held now, the ‘retreat’ would be an ideal window for Indian and Pakistani leaders to meet informally and exchange possible solutions with new Afghan leaders. The Indian analyst also proposed that with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a joint peacekeeping force from the SAARC region under the UN aegis could be explored to fill the power vacuum that would otherwise be filled by terrorist and extremist forces. However, it is too late for such a peacekeeping force to be involved as the Taliban has already taken over control.

As the COVID pandemic hit South Asia, several leaders including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined a video conference of SAARC leaders to underscore the need for cooperation on a regional basis for fighting the pandemic. If the proceedings had not taken place under the SAARC banner, leaders from the eight countries would not have come together so readily on such short notice. Such capacity to bring the Member-States together shows the potential power of SAARC.

As commentator Dinesh Bhattarai said, if the geopolitical dynamics following World War II could allow die-hard enemies France and Germany to interface effectively enough to create the European Union, there is no reason why India and Pakistan cannot come together. As Nelson Mandela said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

If all the leaders have the will and political desire, SAARC definitely has the capacity to bring the South Asian nations together. But Pakistan prefers to keep India out and work with Muslim neighbours to keep Afghanistan in their camp.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa telephoned former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai to assure Sri Lanka’s continued support to the people of Afghanistan. While outgoing President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul as the Taliban entered the capital, former President Karzai stayed behind to ensure smooth transition.

Premier Rajapaksa tweeted that he spoke to Karzai in a bid to inquire about the ongoing developments unfolding in the war-torn country and further reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s support for Afghans. Former President Karzai has formed a Coordination Council along with High Council for National Reconciliation of Afghanistan Chairman Abdullah Abdullah and former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to ensure a peaceful transfer of power. However, talks between the two sides were stuck owing to certain “unacceptable conditions” imposed by the Taliban.


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